Carl Knight
University of Glasgow
This article argues for an unconventional interpretation of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s distinctive approach to method in the history of ideas. It is maintained that the value of the central concept of the ‘unit-idea’ has been misunderstood by friends and foes alike. The commonality of unit-ideas at different times and places is often defined in terms of familial resemblance. But such an approach must necessarily define unit-ideas as being something other than the smallest conceptual unit. It is therefore in tension with Lovejoy’s methodological prescription and, more importantly, disregards a potentially important aspect of intellectual history – the smaller conceptual units themselves. In response to this, an alternative interpretation of unit-ideas as ‘elemental’ – as the smallest identifiable conceptual components – is put forward. Unlike the familial resemblance approach, the elemental approach can provide a plausible explanation for changes in ideas. These are construed as being either the creation of new unit-ideas, the disappearance of existing ones, or alterations in the groups of unit-ideas that compose idea-complexes. The focus on the movement of unit-ideas and idea-complexes through history can also be sensitive to contextual issues, carefully distinguishing the different meanings that single words may have, in much the way that both Lovejoy and his influential critic Quentin Skinner suggest.
Keywords Quentin Skinner   causality   context   Arthur O. Lovejoy   change
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1163/187226312X650746
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

References found in this work BETA

Making Sense of Conceptual Change.Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen - 2008 - History and Theory 47 (3):351-372.
The Thirteen Pragmatisms.Arthur O. Lovejoy - 1963 - Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Geistesgeschichte Vs. History of Ideas as Applied to Hitlerism.Leo Spitzer - 1944 - Journal of the History of Ideas 5 (1/4):191.
Present Standpoints and Past History.Arthur O. Lovejoy - 1939 - Journal of Philosophy 36 (18):477-489.

View all 8 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Modelling the History of Ideas.Arianna Betti & Hein van den Berg - 2014 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 22 (4):812-835.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Rationality and the Unit of Action.Christopher Woodard - 2011 - Review of Philosophy and Psychology 2 (2):261-277.
The Concept of Unit Coherence and Its Application to Psychology Theories.David Trafimow - 2012 - Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 42 (2):131-154.
Ideas Are Not Replicators but Minds Are.Liane Gabora - 2004 - Biology and Philosophy 19 (1):127-143.
The Limits of Individualism Are Not the Limits of Rationality.Susan Hurley - 2003 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26 (2):164-165.
Spatiotemporal Unit Formation.Thomas F. Shipley - 1998 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21 (6):772-772.


Added to PP index

Total views
1,733 ( #2,838 of 2,519,857 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
121 ( #5,538 of 2,519,857 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes